Reading a book evokes solitary images of lying in bed late at night or sitting beneath a beach umbrella lost in a fantasy. But BookGlutton.com, a Web site that permits readers to chat about books as they read, may be transforming a lone activity into a communal one.
The site was born out of co-founder Travis Alber's desire to talk about books with friends who had moved away. Her solution? A Web site that allows multiple users to write in the margins of an online book.
"You can chat inside any chapter of the book, or you can click on any paragraph and attach a comment to it, and someone else can come past that point in the book later and respond," she says.
The site has been getting a lot of interest from teachers, including New York University English professor Jessamyn Hatcher, who asked her class to use BookGlutton to read King Lear.
Hatcher says it was perfect for reading a text as complex and poetic as Shakespeare — and student Lila Tod agrees.
"It was really nice because people could say their different point of view ... kind of like you would do in class, but we were outside of class," Tod says.
Hatcher says Tod and the other students were already engaged in the subject matter by the time they got to class: "They'd been having these conversations in the margins all night long, and I think this allowed our conversations to be deeper and richer than they would have been otherwise."
Right now, BookGlutton is still a fairly small site, with about 1,500 public domain books and 120,000 readers a month. But the site's founders are already having conversations with publishers that would expand their online library to include newly released books.
Leah Price, a professor of English at Harvard University, says this is the beginning of a change in how we read books. She says it's only a matter of time before technology like BookGlutton's unites with popular eBooks like Amazon's Kindle or Sony's eReader.
"There's something frustrating about reading on a Kindle," Price says. "The fact that you're reading on a screen makes you expect, 'Oh, I should be able to click through on this. Oh, I should be able to look this word up. I should be able to Google this name.' "
Price has no doubt that within the next decade, no one will feel that frustration anymore. Yet even some of BookGlutton's younger fans worry that the new technology might not provide the same reading experience. Tod says reading online would test her powers of concentration.
"I think it would be hard for me to not get distracted by other things," she says. "When I'm reading [a book] I'm kind of hyperfocused, and I don't know if it would be the same."
Tod says she likes the quiet dialogue between the words on the page and her imagination — the way she comes up with her own idea of what a character looks like without anyone else's ideas intruding on her fantasies. Even so, the forces that are moving us toward a more interconnected world aren't likely to be stopped by readers' love for old-fashioned books.